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A James Anderson re-enactor and David Pickerell, master distiller for the George Washington Distillery, watch as Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whiskey Association, officially seals a barrel of scotch whisky produced at the distillery.(Mary Ann Anderson/MCT)
Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mount Vernon is a ‘spiritual’ place in more ways than you think

MOUNT VERNON, Va. – If it looks like Scotch whisky, smells like Scotch whisky and tastes like Scotch whisky, then it must be Scotch whisky, right?

Well, sort of.

When it’s made in the United States – specifically, at George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill in Virginia near Mount Vernon, and not in Scotland, where all scotch comes from – then it becomes Scotch whiskey with an “e.” Again, sort of.

The trick in making it more whisky than whiskey involves a few things.

The first is the idea itself of making it on U.S. soil, which was the brainchild of David Blackmore, the master brand ambassador for Glenmorangie. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Scotch Whisky Association – although Scotch whisky has been around for centuries more than that – and in thinking up a celebratory event to mark the occasion, the light bulb over Blackmore’s head went “ding, ding, ding!”

“I thought that we should bring the Scots over to make whiskey here,” Blackmore said.

He began talking to a few people, who talked to more people, and before long the idea of producing Scotch whiskey in America began rolling around like a barrel of, well, whiskey.

Interjection time for the briefest of brief history lessons:

In the late 1700s, James Anderson, George Washington’s farm manager, who was originally from Scotland – and a whiskey maker, at that – talked his boss into getting into the distilled spirits industry. Very long story short, Washington eventually became the largest distiller of corn and rye whiskey in the nation.

Now is when the Old World meets the New. Washington’s distillery, painstakingly restored to its 18th century architecture and reopened in 2007, seemed the logical and most historical place to make whiskey into whisky. With the melding of cultures of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Scotch Whisky Association, the Scottish government and the Mount Vernon Estate, the distilling began.

First of all, a few tons of Scottish malt barley were imported to the distillery, where stoners – the milling kind, not the hippie kind – milled it right on the grounds.

Next came another import: a handful of cuter-than-cute Scotsmen in kilts, including Glenmorangie’s master distiller, Bill Lumsden; Laphroaig’s master distiller, John Campbell; and Andy Cant, master distiller for Cardhu Single Malt Distillery and home of Johnnie Walker.

On the domestic side and not dressed in a kilt was David Pickerell, the master distiller for the George Washington Distillery, who spent years honing his craft first with Maker’s Mark and now Hillrock Estate Distillery and WhistlePig Rye Whiskey.

For three days in late March, these young Scots, one Kentucky gentleman and a well-rounded crew from the distillery journeyed back to the 1700s to make Scotch whisky the authentic, old-fashioned way with wood-burning fires and copper pots and three-cornered hats.

OK, so they occasionally pulled out their BlackBerries and smartphones and iThingies to stay in touch with the modern-day world, but for those three days, they worked to get the recipe just right, nurturing the liquid, measuring it out, taking its temperature and even weighing it.

In sampling the first of the liquid, which is a shimmery silver and much like white lightnin’ before it’s aged to a golden hue in Glenmorangie’s American white oak barrels, Lumsden declared with a lip-smacking grin, “Ahhhhh! I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s bloody good.”

So, how do you get your hands on a bottle of the Scotch whisky-without-the-e? (“That’s in honor of our Scotch friends,” said Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.)

For the time being, you don’t. In following the rules of the Scotch Whisky Association, the whiskey must be aged in barrels for at least three years. You can’t even peek at the barrels, said Pickerell, who when pressed about where they’re stored, merely gives a sly smile and says, “In an undisclosed location.”

But three years from now, you might have, say, a one-in-a-gazillion shot – a literal and figurative shot – at tasting the whiskey, as the first hundred bottles, the first Scotch ever to come out of the distillery at Mount Vernon, will be auctioned for charity around the world, Coleman said.

While you may not ever see or taste the whiskey, you can still see the distillery and how whiskey was made in Washington’s time.

“The still is primarily an education exhibition by seeing how whiskey was made 200 years ago,” said Dennis Pogue, the vice president for preservation at Mount Vernon Estate.

He added that the story of making Scotch on the property “really resonates” because of the connection between America and Scotland.

“The bonds of friendship between the two nations go back a long way,” said Robyn Naysmith, the Scottish government counselor for North America. “James Anderson persuaded George Washington that whiskey wasn’t a bad industry to get into.”

A visit to the distillery and museum is the perfect accompaniment to a visit to Mount Vernon and is quite family-friendly, despite the fact that alcohol is occasionally produced there.

And perched venerably on a nearby hill is Washington’s reconstructed water-powered gristmill. Re-enactors in colonial clothing grind corn and wheat into meal, flour and stone-ground grits that you can buy in the gift shop.

“This has been a very special year for the Scotch Whisky Association, a record year for Scotch whisky in the United States,” said Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association. “And this was a very special cask filling for us.”

We’ll drink to that.